By Kamal Lakisic and Saad Qazi
Pushed to leave your home due to circumstance, remaining stateless for years trying to scrape up an education, leaving your continent for what might be the remainder of your life—this is the story of many millions around the globe, and has an acute similarity to that of Ali, a migrant from Djibouti who, on his journey out of his home, led him to travel through dozens of nations before settling, finally, in the Bay Area. Such stories, in many ways far more revealing than just flat data and information, are what add context and at the same time eloquently uncover a long and unknown history of unthinkable tribulations of millions.
The major aspect of any story, the destination, reflects the journey taken by each refugee, as where they go will spell the fates of their families and future generations. In the Bay Area, a destination for multitudes of immigrants from dozens of countries all over the world, many of these such experiences can be seen and learned from, allowing us to better understand why they have come here—and why they deserve to stay.
Migrants in Silicon Valley who originate from the Middle East and Africa, forming and joining communities of their own, have especially rich stories. As student reporters who are also members of the local Muslim Community Association—a mosque that is also home to many of those respective immigrant groups—we have been able to uncover several such stories through interviewing community members.
Fawzy Ismail, the MCA building manager, an experienced man who spends much of his time keeping the happenings of the building in order, is well-versed in the occurrences of the community and anything that brings change to it. As student reporters and Boy Scouts taking part in our community meetings, we were able to take some time with him to understand more about how refugees and migrants from African and Middle Eastern regions are able to fit in with their livelihoods and families, on top of processing old experiences as well as new information.
In the context of the MCA community itself, Ismail gave his own general understanding of the role in the community in the integration of immigrant populations. “The MCA helps out … to give due opportunities to live in the community, stay around the community, benefit from the community.” He added, “They are adapting to the way of life here, becoming familiar, and the community is trying to help in financial help …They’re struggling, like any newcomer here … he is struggling in the beginning, until he becomes familiar with the area, and gets to know the community.”
After further pressing, Ismail revealed that despite their eventual successes through determination, the difficulties faced by them are prevalent. “But I have to admit, they suffer a lot when they come here because it is a new land and a new tradition … and some of them have language barriers, some of them have experience barriers also, the local experience he used to have there is not really the same here.”
Ismail discussed the story of a man he was acquainted with, an example of a refugee success story that truly represents the strength of the community in the integration of immigrants. “This guy, his name is Muhammad Abood … he came with his family—his wife and children—and his wife couldn’t take it.” Despite this, he stayed in the United States, building his livelihood from $10 to $30 an hour. In the end, he would become a U.S. citizen and work as a contractor. Ismail credited all this to his knowledge, skill, and perseverance. “He is a very successful human being I am proud of … he had the strength to bring his family back here.”
Another community member, who provided his name simply as ‘Ali,’ described a tumultuous year’s long life journey from his home country of Djibouti to eventually settle a family in the United States. From his home in Djibouti, he would begin his journey at a young age searching for opportunity. “I left my family in 1999 … I was trying to get a job and I couldn’t find it.”
He would traverse the continent of Africa, completing his education in South Africa after crossing the turmoil rampant in the Congo and Rwanda—where there was a genocide in progress. He would eventually cross the Atlantic to Brazil with a handful of his friends, where he would begin a five thousand-mile-long journey to the United States. Following the migrant caravans, his group faced obstacles at every border, but would eventually form a strong group with one goal. “Those [who] came from Spanish [countries], I don’t understand them, those who came from African countries [I could].”
By the end of the journey, he was given asylum in the United States, where he would start a family and gain a job in networking firm. Years later, sitting in the main prayer hall of our Community Center, this deep and heavy history seems to linger in his eyes, but otherwise is gone from a seemingly untroubled man.
Through all this reporting, a sort of new understanding has developed in us, and that has caused us to look with ever more scrutiny at our own lives and the hardships we might have had to face (or lack thereof). Perhaps it is the inexcusable tragedies that are taking place in so many nations that push them to this level of effort, and this can be clearly seen in the statement provided by the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. “Over 65 million people are currently displaced from their homes due to unthinkable crises around the world. As a result, they are often forced to live in harsh and unfavorable conditions”
It is only despite all of this that so many, including Ali and Muhammad, have come to see our country, and the Bay Area, as their home. The amount of suffering the refugee and immigrant population has faced has arguably raised their diligence, moral integrity and perseverance, and the level at which they contribute to our nation can clearly be seen in our local communities. It is difficult then to assume that the vast majority of them are unable to integrate, contribute and thrive in our society.